[ASC-list] World class

Julian Cribb jcribb at work.netspeed.com.au
Thu Jun 3 23:45:43 UTC 2010

An interesting debate, but one that seems to lack understanding of what
really happens in the media.

The reason journalists use cliches like 'breakthrough' 'world-first' and
'cutting edge' etc is not so much for the benefit of the external audience,
as for the information of the (non-scientific) editors who make up the news
bench in a media organisation and who decide what runs and what doesn't.

On any given day these editors scan and process several hundred potential
stories from journalists, correspondents, contributors, wire services and
media releases. From this several hundred they will select maybe 10-30 for
the news bulletin or news pages of the paper. The remaining 80-90 per cent
of stories are killed.

A science story has a number of problems from a news editor's perspective.
First, the media isn't terribly interested in science per se, but more in
its impact on society and on their local audience in particular. So the
science story starts behind the eightball, in competition with a politics,
economics, crime, scandal, business or sport story. It has to push its way
up the newslist somehow.

Second, the science wasn't done 'today' - a primary requirement of 24-hour
news media - but over the last few years. It may possibly have been
published today, but that is not a very strong news angle. Media likes its
news to be 'red hot' if possible. So in a sense the science story is already
ageing news and there is no particular argument to run it today as opposed
to any other day. And the newslist is already full.

Third, if you are selling a story, say on a new genetic approach to cancer
therapy, the editors are likely to say "Oh I'm sure I've seen something like
this in the news before" and kill your story just to be safe, even though it
may be fresh as a daisy newswise. They have not appreciated the distinction
between the genes in your story and the genes in a hundred other stories
like it. Frustrated science journalists often resort to terms like
"world-first" to get their editors to understand that this IS a genuine news
story - not old hat and headed for the spike.

Fourth, the media is almost invariably local in its focus, and a term like
'world first' or 'cutting edge' is a signal to its editors that local
scientists have done something good.  Local heroes always get more coverage
than those from interstate or overseas - whether they are scientists or

A science story has to work very hard to get into the top ten percent of
publishable/broadcastable news. Most experienced science journalists will
admit that more than half their efforts usually end on the spike. That was
certainly the case when I was at The Australian, and I know from my
colleagues on other dailies they suffered the same fate.

So while it is all very well to bewail the use of clichés in journalism -
and I do not like them and try constantly to avoid them personally - there
needs to be an appreciation among science communicators about what a science
story is really up against when it enters the news mill, and why a science
journalist might resort to colourful language to give it more impetus with
the editors who have the final say.

To insist on the elimination of such clichés will probably only result in
fewer science stories being published, as a scientifically-illiterate
editorial stratum will not understand they are in fact about genuine,
world-first, breakthrough, cutting-edge science - and send them to the
growing scrap-pile of unpublished news.

While I applaud the elimination of self-praise and hype from institutional
media releases, I defend the right of both science journalists and
communicators to use every verbal device they can to disseminate human
knowledge more widely via the media, without being too heavily criticised by
their peers for doing so.

If this doesn't start an argument in ASC, nothing will...

Julian Cribb FTSE
Julian Cribb & Associates
ph +61 (0)2 6242 8770 or 0418 639 245

-----Original Message-----
From: asc-list-bounces at lists.asc.asn.au
[mailto:asc-list-bounces at lists.asc.asn.au] On Behalf Of Derek Elmes
Sent: Friday, 4 June 2010 8:51 AM
To: longneck at cyllene.uwa.edu.au; asc-list at lists.asc.asn.au
Subject: Re: [ASC-list] World class

Niall, Nancy et al

I recall Rob Morrison commenting on a similar issue several years ago.  When
posting to this list an advertisement for a science communication position
not long after, Rob's comments prompted me to invite people interested in
"communicating cutting edge breakthrough research" to go and work for a
mining equipment organisation.

I suppose the question I'd add is do we know what audiences (as opposed to
communication professionals) think of such words (whether these ones or ones
in other areas of communication e.g. "hero" sports people)? Are there any
studies about audience reaction to there use or over-use?



Derek Elmes
Scientific Services Division
Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water (NSW)

-----Original Message-----
From: asc-list-bounces at lists.asc.asn.au
[mailto:asc-list-bounces at lists.asc.asn.au] On Behalf Of
longneck at cyllene.uwa.edu.au
Sent: Friday, 4 June 2010 12:51 AM
To: asc-list at lists.asc.asn.au
Subject: Re: [ASC-list] World class

Hello Niall,

Yes, I agree. 'Cutting edge' is another one to avoid.

Cheers, Nancy

Assoc Prof Nancy Longnecker

Coordinator, Science Communication Program
Faculty of Life and Physical Sciences, M011
The University of Western Australia
35 Stirling Highway
Crawley, WA   6009

ph: 61 8 6488 3926
email: nancy.longnecker at uwa.edu.au
skype: nancylongnecker

There is no point explaining everything in the universe if no one is  
listening to you.    (UWA Sci Comm student, 2009)

CRICOS Provider No. 00126G

> I'm interested in ASC members' views on the use of world-class and   
> breakthrough in media releases.
> We try to avoid them.
> I generally think that if the work is good it doesn't need the puff.  
>  The journalists can add it in if they want.
> Noel Turnbull made a similar comment in a piece on Crikey today.
> So, for instance, the Victorian government can be obsessive about   
> describing things -- from our events program to buildings -- as   
> world-class, but the reality is that world-class things don't need   
> to be promoted. It is symptomatic of Britain's decline that the   
> world-class cringe sometimes surfaces there too, but one never hears  
>  New York or Paris talking about world-class -- they just are.
> Niall
> ________
> Niall Byrne
> Science in Public
> 26 Railway Street South, Altona Vic 3018
> ph +61 (3) 9398 1416 or 0417 131 977
> niall at scienceinpublic.com.au<mailto:niall at scienceinpublic.com.au>
> Full contact details at   
> www.scienceinpublic.com.au<http://www.scienceinpublic.com.au/>

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